A detailed look into spinal cord injury and the causes of spinal cord injury

A detailed look into spinal cord injury and the causes of spinal cord injury

The spinal cord is a bundle of nerves running from the base of an individual’s brain down through the spine in a person’s back. These nerves are responsible for communicating messages between the brain and other parts of the body. Nerves located in the upper part of the cord convey messages from the brain while those in the in the lower part of the spine spread out to organs and other parts of the body to relay sensations.

A spinal cord injury or SCI happens when the spinal cord is subjected to excess pressure or if oxygen or blood supply is severed to the cord. Damage may result in temporary or permanent loss of function in mobility or feeling. A person may not be able to walk after the injury or other areas of the body may be affected. Impact of the injury may be felt in an individual’s respiratory or cardiovascular systems, affect bowel and bladder functions and fluctuate temperature and other sensory functions.

Spinal cord injury is considered long term and the cause could be trauma such as falls, road accidents or sports accidents. Sometimes the injury may be the result of disorders or diseases like transverse myelitis, polio, spina bifida and others.

When bodily function is lost below the neck due to a spinal cord injury, the condition is referred to as quadriplegia or tetraplegia and if the same impact is experienced below the chest, the condition is called paraplegia. Typically young people ranging between the ages of 15-30 years old are at a higher risk of inflicting injury to the spinal cord.

Many people who experience a spinal cord injury do not necessarily have a severed cord. Instead their cord is intact and the harm has been done as a result of compression or bruising. Based on where damage has been inflicted, and which nerve roots have been impaired, symptoms of SCI can vary immensely.

Injury done to the spinal cord is categorised differently at varied levels of “incomplete” and “complete”. A complete injury is indicative of no motor or sensory function below the area of injury. “Incomplete” levels of injury include when sensory but no motor function is preserved, or when motor function is preserved only partially below the damaged region. Typically the higher the damage to the spinal cord, the more the dysfunction is experienced.

At the time of injury, the spinal cord swells. Swelling will abate with time allowing some degree of functionality again. However, the duration of this can take up to a year and a half after the accident. But it is important to recognize that only a nominally small number of people, if any, will recover all previous functions.

While most organs and body parts can heal on their own after an injury, the nervous system cannot do the same. Therefore, activity based rehabilitation programs are practiced to restore maximum function after an injury. These programs aim at increasing muscle mass and activity, improving circulation and sensation as well as restrict a fall in bone mineral density.

What are the causes of spinal cord injury?

Spinal cord injury can be caused by a number of reasons that are classified as either traumatic or non-traumatic when caused by others factors such as disease or disorders.

When looking into traumatic injury causes, the damaged is often a result of stretching, bruising, impacting or compacting the spinal cord due to the application of an outside force or sudden movement. Events that may cause traumatic spinal cord injury to individuals can include road accidents both for drivers and passengers in a vehicle as well as for unprotected road users. The vehicle may roll over, collide with a roadside hazard or another vehicle, or the individuals involved may not be wearing their seat belts.

All incidents could lead to forcible movements of being thrown forward, sudden rotation of muscles or the neck forcibly extending in a backward direction. Any of these jerking movements can cause the spinal cord to stretch, rotate or compress with pressure and force.

Individuals susceptible to similar road accidents can include motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. Not wearing safety gear such as helmets can aggravate the extent of the injury.

Other than road side accidents, people can also suffer spinal cord injury when involved in recreational or sporting related accidents such as motorised sports or falls. Falls from a height or on the same level can cause damage to the spinal cord and may be the result of feeling dizzy, tripping and falling or slipping and falling. Trips and falls can also account for spinal cord injuries in older people. Occasionally, alcohol consumption or intoxication may also lead to a serious fall.

Falls can also be work related when people have to work on high ladders or scaffolding during construction projects. The same type of work may be done by individuals at home during DIY home renovation.

Another common cause of spinal cord injury is during water related accidents. Surfing, body surfing and diving into shallow water have been reported to have caused spinal cord injuries.

Another type of traumatic injury that causes spinal cord damage may be from penetration wounds. This means that a sharp object such as a knife or bullet pierces and penetrates the spinal cord, damaging the nerves.

The other category of injury to the spinal cord is known as non-traumatic injury. In these instances, there is no trauma involved but factors like disease or a physical disorder are at play. Nerves in the spinal cord can be damaged by a number of health conditions like arthritis and degeneration of the spinal column, cancerous growth in the region, circulatory issues, infections or inflammation.

Various diseases of the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis impacts the spinal cord and its nerves. Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder that results from inflammation across the spinal cord and can result in impairing the spinal nerves’ ability to transmit messages successfully. When cancer tumours are present in the region, they can apply pressure to the spinal cord and destroy tissue. Likewise, any bleeding or ruptures depriving the spinal cord of blood supply can also damage it.


1. Spinal injuries: http://www.qld.gov.au/disability/community/spinal-injuries/#injury

2. What is spinal cord injury: http://scia.org.au/sci-resources-and-knowledge/health-and-sci-facts/what-is-spinal-cord-injury-sci

3. What happens to the spinal cord after injury: http://www.spinalhub.com.au/what-is-a-spinal-cord-injury/what-happens-to-the-spinal-cord-after-injury/causes-of-spinal-cord-injury

4. What is transverse myelitis?: http://www.qld.gov.au/information/what-is-transverse-myelitis/